Archive | August, 2018

If the Crown Fits: When Bad Movies Happen to Good Books

11 Aug

Among moviegoing’s many certainties, one such reaffirms the daunting task of adapting books for the big screen. More often that not, someone, somewhere, will find fault with the finished product sooner or later. Not all such translations are doomed to disappoint en masse. A few beat the odds. Almost 30 years after the fact, Silence of the Lambs still stands as a near perfect example. Of course, there have been others in the interim. Sometimes, a book’s devotees overlook their dissatisfaction with one change or another and appreciate a resulting movie on its own terms. How generous.

Besides the simple fact that books present challenges related to paring a lengthy, far-flung narrative to a comfortable running time conducive to a single sitting, budget concerns and logistics loom as considerations that a writer’s imagination need not address. If the writer can capture the vision on the page, the reader’s mind can run wild with the experience. Furthermore, novelists and book lovers revel in the possibilities of language, that is, the beauty, intricacy, and complexity of words. A well-written sentence wields power and grace. In contrast, film often registers on a more visceral rather than cerebral level.

Sometimes, readers respond to that magical something known as a writer’s voice. Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres reigns as a stunning example. Readers feel compelled to turn the page because the speaker’s voice, Ginny, the oldest of three sisters in conflict over division of their father’s land (by way of Shakespeare’s King Lear), registers so persuasively. A movie can recreate the plot points, the highlights, but “voice” remains elusive. In the case of A Thousand Acres, the loss of voice in the unfortunate 1997 adaptation (starring Jessica Lange and Michelle Pfeiffer) was further compounded by the omission of a major–shocking–plot point. Even weaving select passages from a given text into voiceover narration to help set the scene for moviegoers–connecting the dots, filling in the details–invites debate. Many experienced screenwriters advise newcomers against voiceover, insisting that providing such narration is a cheat and that the objective should be to tell the story so strongly through well-modulated action, visual details, and dialogue that narration is superfluous. Find a way, the experts admonish.

That noted, many a film noir has certainly been enhanced by the world weary voiceover of a cynical detective.

Then, there’s Blade Runner. Director Ridley Scott’s 1982 influential adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a highly stylized post-apocalyptic update on the film noir trope was completed sans narration though the resulting product reportedly left test audiences confused, so star Harrison Ford’s craggy voiceover was added, ostensibly to make the film more marketable to one and all.  Scott and Ford harrumphed, and not in vain.  Even with studio mandated narration, Blade Runner‘s initial run lacked the much needed legs to score big at the box office, instead carrying the mantle of cult favorite. Years later, Scott released a director’s cut that more or less restored his original vision, meaning bye-bye voiceover.  By now, Scott has tinkered with the film so often that he–not the film–looks increasingly ludicrous. Full confession: Michael and I prefer the original theatrical release, not the least of which is because we dig the atmospheric touch provided by Deckerd’s (Ford’s) account. Btw, it’s the 1982 release that the National Film Registry selected for commemoration. So there.

A second seemingly inescapable certainty regarding movies dictates that, especially in the Internet age, many of us love playing “Recast that Movie,” otherwise known as “If Such and Such Movie were Made Today, Who Would You Cast?” The Internet Movie Database’s dearly missed message boards once thrived on such propositions, and the conversations followed to social media. Seemingly every other Valley of the Dolls fan indulges from time-to-time as do devotees of All About Eve, Steel Magnolias, Casablanca, Clue, and scads upon scads of others.

Angelina Jolie, seen here in a 2017 Guerlain ad, stands out as ideally suited to play legendary screen goddess Fedora in my dream remake of Thomas Tryon’s novella of the same name, that is, Fedora. Besides her considerable acting skills, and the fact that the Oscar winner hasn’t had a thrilling role in a while, Jolie exudes not just good looks but star wattage and mystique galore. At 43, she’s old enough to portray the character who appears to have stopped aging at around 50ish though she could easily play 30ish or so in flashbacks. Done. Charlize Theron, also 43, is a close second. I wouldn’t rule out Jennifer Garner, 46. I’d like to see her in a super-challenging big screen role. She’s under-served in many movies. Emily Blunt, 35, might be too young to be convincing in the modern scenes. Ditto Scarlett Johansson, 33. Meanwhile, Kristen Thomas, already in her 50s and smashingly radiant, would be a stretch, er the flashbacks. (IMAGE: https://celebun.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Angelina-Jolie-Mon-Guerlain-2018-Pictures-01.jpg)

All of which brings me to Fedora, Billy Wilder’s ill-fated effort to bring Thomas Tryon’s novella of the same name to the big screen. Never heard of it? Please allow me. I had a chance to revisit Sunset Boulevard (1950), Billy Wilder’s Gothic tinged Hollywood satire, a few months ago as part of a Big Screen Classics series. From that, a friend gave me a copy of Dallas author Sam Staggs’ book on the making of the celebrated flick that starred Gloria Swanson and William Holden as, respectively, a long faded silent screen star desperate to return to the big screen and a fast-talking, younger screenwriter going nowhere fast who strikes the actress’ fancy. And there’s a murder.

Anyway, Staggs’ well chronicled account, and a Wilder bio by Ed Sikov, brought back memories of Tryon’s Fedora, both the book and the missed opportunity that befell the big screen adaptation.  How so? Keep reading.

Darkly, ruggedly, handsome, 6’3″ Thomas Tryon worked steadily as an actor in television and movies, beginning in the 1950s and up through the 1960s. Ironically, his splashiest big screen success led to his decision to quit acting, at which point he turned to writing novels. In 1963, Tryon played the lead in Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal, earning a Golden Globe nod as well as a Golden Laurel nomination. The film scored additional accolades, including Oscar nominations for Preminger (Best Director) and John Huston (Best Supporting Actor); however, on-set clashes between Tryon and the director left the actor emotionally bruised and prompted him to rethink his career options. His first novel, super-natural charged The Other, hit number 1 on the best seller list and attracted all kinds of attention–my mother was a huge fan.  Director Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird) signed on for the movie version, and Tryon wrote the screenplay. A succès d’estime, perhaps. So far, so good. Next up? Tryon followed through with Harvest Home, another huge success. Retitled The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, it became a popular, frequently re-aired mini-series, featuring no less than Bette Davis and earning a couple of Emmy nods.

After Lady, Tryon turned to his Hollywood background for 1976’s Crowned Heads, a collection of four novellas, each portraying a fictional star fallen on hard times. The making of a particular film, in which all four performers appeared, links the stories. Sort of.  The most intriguing of the quartet was “Fedora” which I first read in the spring of ’76 as a lengthy excerpt in Ladies Home Journal, a special Hollywood themed issue no doubt timed to coincide with the Oscars.

In short, Fedora tells the story of a Russian born silent film star (Maria Katrin Fedorowich) who makes a big impression in Berlin  before crossing the Atlantic en route to the Hollywood dream machine. Rechristened Fedora, she survives the transition to talkies and embarks on a decades long career, almost without exception as a star, never reduced to playing the leading lady’s mother, grandmother, or aunt. She was and is the leading lady, a seemingly ageless beauty who enthralls audiences even when her films disappoint. Tryon even throws a few Oscar nominations into the Academy’s real-life timeline for verisimilitude, besides the star’s complete filmography along with detailed plot explanations.

The role of writer Barry Detweiler presents a challenge in that the character appears in scenes set just after VE Day as well as later scenes in the 1970s, the latter of which occupy the larger portion of the story. While lead character Fedora appears to defy aging, it would be next to impossible for one actor to play Detweiler as a fresh-faced soldier and as his older, more distinguished self. Even so, I always visualized the character from the 1970s’ sequences as looking much like Tryon himself, per the below photo. The key is to cast the mature Detweiler first. With that in mind, Billy Crudup, 50, seems to have all the right stuff, but so does George Clooney, 57. Clive Owen, 53, and Eric Bana, 49, come to mind as well. Pierce Brosnan, 65, cannot be ruled out entirely. Back to Crudup. The one-time Texas resident has been making movies for over 20 years, including 2015’s Best Picture winner Spotlight yet is still not as established on screen in the same way he is onstage. He  won a featured actor Tony for The Coast of Utopia in 2007. Earlier this year he won an Obie for Harry Clarke, in which he  played 19 characters. Once upon a time, late  ’80s-early ’90s, Detweiler would have been a solid fit for Michael Douglas or Richard Gere. (IMAGE: https://www.villagevoice.com/2018/05/24/billy-crudup-off-broadways-accidental-seducer/)

So powerful is Fedora’s mystique that her fans never abandon their affection. In some quarters, she’s hailed as “the perfect work of art.”  Her comebacks are also legendary. Her frequent absences, or disappearances, spark all kinds of rumors. Drugs? Nervous exhaustion? A torrid affair with a Polish nobleman? Then, she returns, as enigmatic as ever. It’s not that she appears to have never aged, only more slowly, less noticeably, less discernibly, than her contemporaries. The handiwork of sinister Dr. Vando, a Portugese anti-aging specialist?  Eventually, upheavals associated with a particular project spell doom, finality, for her career. She retreats to the Greek islands, finding comfort–for awhile–in the villa of her Polish former lover’s willful, albeit wheelchair bound, mother, the Countess Sobryanski.

Then one day, an American writer named Barry Detweiler, seemingly a projection of Tryon himself, arrives, haunted by a chance encounter with Fedora decades previously. He’s not a screenwriter, to be clear, but a biographer looking for a fresh angle on the elusive star’s legendary story. He’s the audience surrogate as de facto detective.

Sound familiar? Maybe a bit reminiscent of Sunset Boulevard, not to mention the lives and times of such real life luminaries as famously reclusive Greta Garbo by way of Marlene Dietrich,  Gloria Swanson (speaking of Sunset Boulevard), Pola Negri, maybe Ingrid Bergman (younger than the others, yes, but but legendarily beautiful, foreign-born, and no stranger to international scandal), and even Mae West (famous for her bawdy humor as well as her allegedly outrageous anti-aging treatments). All of these stars were still very much alive at the time Tryon published “Fedora” and, likewise, when the troubled film premiered, but I digress.

With all this in mind, Billy Wilder seemed a logical pick to direct a movie version of Fedora. Why not? After all, he’d directed Sunset Boulevard while Fedora, as many critics noted, functioned as its distant cousin. Charles Brackett, with whom Wilder collaborated on Sunset Boulevard‘s Oscar winning screenplay (among others), had passed away a few years earlier–and the two had parted after Sunset Boulevard, anyway. Instead, Wilder once again teamed with I.A.L. Diamond, his partner on several films, including such classics as Some Like It Hot and Academy Best Picture winner The Apartment, for which, to clarify, the duo won Oscars for writing.

What could go wrong?

Besides everything, that is.

Who should play the infirmed, white haired dowager Countess Sobryanski, who may or may not be holding reckless Fedora as a hostage? A gag in 1996’s First Wives Club offers that there are only three age groups for actresses in Hollywood: “Babe. District Attorney. And Driving Miss Daisy,” but Miss Daisy came out in 1989, almost 30 years ago, while First Wives premiered over 20 years ago. Things have changed. Expectations have changed. Jessica Tandy turned 80 while completing Miss Daisy, and won an Oscar, indeed, but she had been playing ‘little old ladies’ well before then. Today, the likes of Oscar winner Helen Mirren (73) along with Charlotte Rampling (72) and Glenn Close (71) play a variety of roles, often with more than just a hint of sex appeal. The crone of a countess offers none of that and while these three giants boast plenty of acting chops, any of them would require “old age” makeup to play the role as outlined. Now in her late 70s and as smashing as ever, Julie Christie maintains a low profile, but she’d be great too. At 69, Jessica Lange could play the role, of course, but she would need even more aging. Naturally, Meryl Streep is in the mix, and, hey, why not Isabelle Huppert or Barbara Hershey? Meanwhile, Vanessa Redgrave, Maggie Smith, and Judi Dench can act just about anything. This photo depicts Mirren at the premiere of 2017’s The Leisure Seeker, opposite Donald Sutherland, for  which she scored a Globe nomination. (IMAGE: http://www.celebzz.com/helen-mirren-at-the-leisure-seeker-premiere-held-at-pacific-design-center-in-west-hollywood/)

Referring back to the beginning of this piece, Tryon’s story works as well as it does thanks to a strong, compelling voice. With one tantalizing tease at a time, Detweiler, the narrator–being interviewed by a prominent TV journalist–pulls the reader into a fascinating tale, jumping all over the place with flashbacks and fast forwards, bouncing back and forth from the 1970s to the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and so on, as well as shifting locales: New York, California, France, Russia, Germany, Tangier, and Greece. Not only does Wilder and Diamond’s screenplay lack that crucial detail (in spite of voiceover, per the framing device of Detweiler’s conversation with the reporter), the story skimps on, or simply rewrites, crucial details. The finished film only superficially resembles the source material, and in all the wrong ways; moreover, the writers dumb down the story, making dumb additions and substitutions that make a folly of Tyron’s text. Why? One character’s death is reimagined as a violent suicide for no apparent reason. A bit of a to-do is made over one character’s gloves though the book includes no such heavy handed reference; meanwhile, a character in the book is described as sporting a very specific hair do. The same character in the movie almost always wears hats, humongous hats. Almost every detail about the biographer’s back story and his chance encounter with Fedora is completely shot to hell, changing the dynamic between the two. Why?  In short, the adaptation is a mess.

Worse, Wilder is stingy with the close-ups. Plus, Fedora often hides, per Garbo in her twilight years, behind oversized hats and shades. Imagine filming a movie in which the lead character’s lasting fame owes to her incomparable beauty, the so-called perfect work of art, and only rarely allowing audiences to see, to experience, that beauty for themselves. She could be anybody. Frustrating.

Not to mention Michael York. The fair-haired, real-life star of such 70s hits as Cabaret, Murder on the Orient Express, and Logan’s Run, pops up in Fedora as himself of all people, a key player in a silly plot thread that has absolutely NOTHING to do with Tryon’s original. What gives? I can scarcely believe York allowed himself to be talked into such a stunt. He’s not alone in that regard as Henry Fonda also pops up as the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, yet another sequence invented for the film and having NOTHING to do with the original text.

Once again, a book is powerful enough to attract the attention of moviemakers who then set about making changes, diluting the very thing that made the book worthwhile, popular, in the first place.

Wilder and Diamond’s resulting mess was released without much fanfare in 1979 after originally being slated to premiere during the 1978 Christmas season. Per Staggs, Wilder knew the production was on its way to being a train wreck within a week or so of shooting, but turning back wasn’t an option (372).  Even so, as an ardent fan of the book, I am glad that I finally got to see it, years ago, via 7-8 minute snippets on YouTube. I’ve seen it at least once more since then, without nagging interruption, not that it helps. Boo-hoo.

Besides Wilder and Diamond’s problematic screenplay, problems with Fedora can also be attributed to poor casting choices. Early reports announced that Wilder originally approached Faye Dunaway for Fedora and Marlene Dietrich as the dowager countess (Sikov 553). Wilder directed Dietrich’s stunning performance in Witness for the Prosecution, thus a perfect match, a known quantity; however, Dietrich reportedly hated Tryon’s book in the first place, so her participation in the adaptation quickly became a moot point (553). Did anybody ask Garbo? Possible but not probable. Did Wilder pursue his Sunset Boulevard star Gloria Swanson? Again, the symmetry would have helped sell the movie.

Per Dunaway, she was at the peak of her stardom in the mid-to-late 1970s, what with Chinatown, Oscar winner Network, and The Eyes of Laura Mars, and would have been the perfect choice:  unconventional, effortlessly glamorous, strikingly photogenic (the planes of her face at that point were amazing, astonishing), alternating behind a kind of icy remoteness and fluttery, high-strung mannerisms. Plus, Dunaway, a great clotheshorse if there ever were one, looks swell in period wardrobe, and, again Fedora spans decades’ worth of styles. Alas, this was not to be. I’ve read the book many times. I can hear Dunaway’s voice when Fedora speaks.

I don’t recall what happened regarding Dunaway’s involvement though, again, she was at the peak of her stardom and was working pretty much non-stop. Maybe she was more unavailable than uninterested.

With his first choices for two of the leads out of the running, Wilder had to settle. And settle he did.  First up, Marthe Keller, the Swedish native who first caught American audiences’ attention with French director Claude Lelouche’s multi-generational saga And Now My Love, Oscar nominated for its screenplay. From there, she quickly signed on for the likes of Black Sunday, Marathon Man, and Bobby Deerfield, co-starring with Al Pacino in the latter–and with whom she would enjoy a whirlwind affair. Casting a Swedish actress in a Garboesque role might have made marketing sense, but Keller lacked star stature, certainly not the caliber of Dunaway.

This picture shows Thomas Tryon on the back of the Crowned Heads book jacket. He later published a similar collection of fictionalized Hollywood tales entitled All that Glitters, not a sequel to Crowned Heads, more like a companion piece. Tryon died of stomach cancer at the still young age of 65 back in 1991. (IMAGE: https://www.ebay.com/p/Crowned-Heads-by-Thomas-Tryon-1976-Hardcover/1240576)

For the countess, Wilder hired German born Hildegard Kneff, all of 50 at the time if my research holds. Knef was no stranger to Hollywood though she was hardly a household name. Her past involvement with a Nazi soldier sullied her reputation, so she found better opportunities back in Europe. Even so, Kneff enjoyed a whiff of success on Broadway when she co-starred opposite Don Ameche in Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings back in ’56. Incredibly, Porter and his collaborators, including George S. Kaufman, adapted Silk Stockings from the 1939 movie Ninotchka, starring the one and only Greta Garbo. The show attracted lots of attention but Kneff’s role, the same one previously played by Garbo, was handed to Cyd Charisse when MGM brought the property back to the big screen.

Besides the fact that Wilder seemed clueless regarding just about every aspect of the movie he agreed to make, meaning a poorly adapted text and bewildering set-up and editing choices, Keller and Kneff solidified the debacle. Yes, Fedora is Russian, by way of Germany, and, yes, the countess is Polish. Of course, we expect them to speak in accented English; likewise, as noted, Keller is Swedish while Kneff hails from Germany. Once again, of course, we expect them to speak in accented English though the scuttlebutt is that both performers’ accents were so thick that test audiences experienced difficulty understanding them. That led Wilder to opting to have the actresses dubbed (Sikov 559). Dubbed poorly that is. The voices clearly sound piped-in from another room, and the synchronization is awful. Plus, the readings for the Fedora character are particularly lackluster–brusque, monotone–as if the person providing the voice had ever only watched the early scenes of, yes, Ninotchka, in which Garbo plays an apparently humor-impaired Soviet emissary.  But her dry readings were delivered tongue-in-cheek. She was in on the gag, and it was funny. Not so the train wreck served in Fedora.

Wilder’s next casting terror comes to us in the form of William Holden. Once again, this seems like a marketing decision more than anything else. After all, Holden and Wilder worked together famously on Sunset Boulevard, in which the actor played a down on his luck screenwriter, who was just desperate enough to allow himself to be kept by reclusive  filthy rich movie star with aspirations of magnificent return to glory. As rewritten in Wilder and Diamond’s script, Fedora’s Barry Detweiler character has upgraded to role of producer who hopes to sell the elusive star on the idea of a comeback, but I’m getting ahead of myself.  Besides Sunset Boulevard, Holden and Wilder also collaborated on Stalag 17, for which Holden won that year’s Best Actor Oscar, and the perennially popular Sabrina starring Audrey Hepburn, among others. Plus, and this is important, Holden had just scored an Oscar nomination for Network [1], playing an ousted old school news department bigwig whose mid-life crisis leads him into brief, unsatisfying affair with a ratings obsessed programming executive: Dunaway, in her Oscar winning turn. FYI: Before Network, Dunaway and Holden had previously appeared in 1974’s The Towering Inferno, a blockbuster Best Picture nominee that competed in the same year as Dunaway’s smashing Chinatown.

Holden was still in his 50s when he made Network and had turned 60 by the time Fedora premiered, but he looked much older than his years in both films, and the effect is especially pathetic in Fedora. Years, decades, of drinking had taken a hard toll, pretty much  the consensus and borne out by his passing in 1981 at the relatively young age of 61, still middle age [2]. Cause of death? Apparently he busted his head after falling during an intoxicated stupor and lost a fatal amount of blood [3]. May he rest in peace.

Holden looks desperate in Fedora. He reeks of it. More him than the character, per se, a real mess.

In flashbacks, then boyish Stephen Collins portray’s Holden’s Detweiler, but the actors might as well be in separate movies.  They don’t register the way they should. Plus, Collins’ sequences are worlds’ removed from the way Tryon envisioned the comparable flashback in his book, meaning the chance encounter between Detweiler and Fedora. In Tryon’s version, the two meet in the Louvre after WWII. In the movie, young Detweiler appears as production assistant on one of the star’s Hollywood films. Again, the difference changes the dynamic. In the book, the characters are more or less equals, strangers, with Fedora more or less travelling incognito (per Garbo), with neither claiming home field advantage. In the movie, the characters meet with Fedora very much in the star element and holding all the power. Plus, Wilder depicts the relationship is as sexually charged, also a change from the book.

This is the April 1976 issue of Ladies Home Journal featuring fabulous Sophia Loren, no doubt timed to coincide with the annual ballyhoo surrounding the Oscars, keeping in mind that magazines hit the stands about a month earlier than the specified date–and the Academy typically presented its awards in March. I first read Tryon’s Crowned Heads excerpt, “Fedora,” within the pages of this magazine. Notice the blub just beneath Loren’s face. Later, I purchased the book in hardback at the then new–and now long gone–Century Bookstore at Spring Valley and Coit. Also, of interest in the mag is a feature on Garbo and a mini-fashion spread starring four relative newcomers, coincidentally including future Fedora star Marthe Keller, along with–as I recall–Marisa Berenson, Jill Clayburgh, and Andrea Marcovicci.

Besides the (re) casting choices indicated in the various sidebars, a few roles need to be considered.  First up, the females beginning with Mrs. Balfour–companion to the ailing countess. Ever reliable Frances Sternhagen played the role previously. She was in her late 40s at the time and already well known for her work in theater, including a Tony as a featured player in The Good Doctor, as well as a recurring role in a series of Crest toothpaste commercials on the telly. Since then, she has earned yet another Tony (per the revival of The Heiress) and gained legions of fans from her roles in such series as Cheers and The Closer in addition to a host of films, including Outland, Misery, Doc Hollywood, and Raising Cain (with a dizzying monologue, apparently filmed in one continuous take) among many, many others. I think it would be great if she could play Balfour all over again, frankly. That noted, I recently watched a series of interviews of Jane Curtin via the Archive of American Television (emmytvlegends.org), and I’ve always loved the edge she brings to characters with sunniest dispositions. Hmmmm….Balfour is slightly dotty but also a bit secretive. Curtin could work though, I believe, the character is actually English. Still, Sternhagen managed just fine without being English, right? Secondly, Tryon bookends his tale with an interview between Marion Walker, a morning news show reporter, and biographer Detweiler. At the time of the book’s release, Walker seemed to closely resemble no less than Barbara Walters, keeping in mind that besides the similarity of last names Walters was at that point flying high, transitioning from her formidable role in NBC’s Today to co-hosting ABC World News Tonight with Harry Reasoner and making history in the process as the first woman to anchor a network evening news program. Arlene Francis played the role in Wilder’s film, reportedly after Walters declined (Sikov 556). Despite the similarities with Tryon’s Good Morning, USA, ABC’s Good Morning America was brand spanking new at the time and hardly in the same league as Today; however, I think a bit of creative casting is in order. Why not, GMA‘s Robin Roberts? America loves her. Of course, the “present day” scenes in the book are set in the 70s, and that would need to remain the case in order for the story’s timeline to make sense. With that in mind, Roberts could not realistically play herself, per se, but who cares? She could pull off the role without a lot of fuss, and, no, I don’t even think with her classic, sporty, look goods she would need to be weighed under by period hair and makeup, which are merely incidental. Roberts has the recognition value to connect with audiences and get the story rolling.

Per the males, the movie greatly expanded the role of the mysterious Dr. Vando, rendering him much more a key player than in the book wherein he’s often referred to but makes only a fleeting appearance. Wilder cast no less than Jose Ferrer in the enhanced role, a coup, but superfluous. What about Fedora’s off and on again affair with the Polish count? Someone has to play the part, true enough, but it does not require a star. Finally,  Fedora’s intimidating chauffer, more like prison guard, could be played by just about anyone. Sorry.

I once read a quote in which someone, possibly John Huston, complained that Hollywood types often remake good movies, the ones that already work and have stood the test of time, instead of remaking the lesser known titles that could actually benefit from a redo. Of course, the flipside to that argument, and I’m inclined to attribute this one to Pauline Kael, is that sometimes a clunker has such inherent flaws that a remake seems pointless unless, of course, the material is seriously, scrupulously, re-evaluated.  Tryon’s original story might have structural flaws that render an intelligent screenplay impossible. That consideration is something about which might have frustrated Wilder and team, and they did the best that they thought they could at the time, all things considered; nonetheless, a good movie has yet to be made from Fedora.

Of course, the imagined remake still needs a director. Here are two possibilities: Sofia Coppola and Jodie Foster.

Meanwhile, Fedora may very well be out of print, per se, but it’s still available on Kindle. Plus, as things often go, no less than two hardbacks recently popped up at a local bookstore famous for selling used books at a discount. Now, is a good time to visit or revisit Tryon’s intriguing assemblage of characters and play the “recasting the movie” game. We’ll compare notes when you do.

Thanks for your consideration…

[1] – About that Oscar nod. Holden lost to his Network co-star, the later Peter Finch–in the role of once distinguished news anchor taken to stark raving on-air hallucinatory proclamations (most famously, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”). The celebrated Finch died suddenly of a heart ailment in early 1977, just as the Oscar season was swinging into action. From the first Network test screenings, word began building that Finch was an Oscar sure-shot though there was some debate between the actor and studio brass (MGM) as to whether his character was leading or supporting. Finch definitely had an opinion on the matter and made his voice heard, unequivocally (Wiley and Bona 530). Since his ‘Howard Beale’ functions as the story’s catalyst, not to mention the most quoted character, it’s hard to imagine that he was ever considered as anything other than a lead or co-lead. Frankly, I never doubted that Finch would win the Best Actor Oscar from the earliest reports I read. His death, just prior to the official announcement of nominees, prompted all manner of speculation regarding a sympathy vote; nonetheless, he won, and his widow accepted the award on his behalf.  Holden seemed not take accept defeat graciously, reportedly remarking to someone in his inner circle, “If the son of a bitch hadn’t died, I could have had my second Oscar” (536).

[2] – Holden’s drinking, and the effect it had begun to take on him as far back as 1950 and the making of Sunset Boulevard, has been remarked upon more than once. For example, Nancy Olson, Sunset Boulevard‘s ingénue, offers as much on page 72 in Staggs’ book. Staggs elaborates on the toll of such abuse on page 226. The author further reports that Paramount makeup supervisor Wally Westmore once claimed that a shirtless Holden looked as firm and athletic as any actor in Hollywood, the face being a different matter entirely (230). Elsewhere, as on the Network DVD commentary and Pauline Kael’s review of the same movie, the word “craggy” is frequently used to describe the actor’s appearance (223).

[3] – Link to UPI report on coroner’s report via New York Timeshttps://www.nytimes.com/1981/11/18/us/coroner-terms-death-of-holden-an-accident.html

Works Cited

Kael, Pauline. “Hot Air.” When the Lights Go Down. Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1980. 219-224.

Sikov, Ed. On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. Hyperion, 2018.

Staggs, Sam. Close-up on Sunset Boulevard: Billy Wilder, Norma Desmond, and the Dark Hollywood Dream. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003.

Wiley, Mason and Damien Bona. Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards, Tenth Anniversary Edition. Ballantine, 1996. 525-536.

 

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